The COVID-19 pandemic has revived the need to focus on adequate and disaster resilient housing. While the interdependence between housing and healthcare was suggested even prior to the pandemic, the past two years have demonstrated how housing instability directly impacts health and well being. In this context, the suggested guidelines by the World Health Organisation — including to the general public to maintain physical distance in general situations, and mandated quarantine/isolated conditions if a person was infected by the virus — proved extremely difficult, especially for those residing in informal housing. Comprising a fair share of urban areas, informal settlements have a high population density, limited access to water and sanitation, and are poorly connected to public health infrastructure — conditions that heighten the vulnerability of residents.
Additionally, the widespread loss of livelihood during this period has increased the inability of many to pay for housing, and has pushed millions into more insecure facilities. Despite prevailing conditions of acute housing distress, a recent study by the Human Rights Law Network documented 83 incidents of eviction, where approximately 54,000 people were pushed into conditions of homelessness between 15 March 2020 and 31 October 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. These evictions increase the vulnerabilities of the people by enhancing their exposure to the virus, but also place them at greater risk with authorities.
Yet, the COVID-19 crisis cannot be understood in isolation; the previous year also saw the threat to housing amplified due to several natural disasters, as well as socially-spurred events of destruction of housing. In this context, a Thematic Convening on Housing and Disasters was organised on 20 September 2021, by the Maha PECONet 2.0 platform to ‘understand adequate housing within the rights-based framework and explore conceptions of disaster-resilient housing’.
The first session aimed at developing a ‘strategic perspective’ through a panel discussion with Lara Shankar, Habitat for Humanity India, and Omkar Khare, UNICEF Maharashtra, moderated by Marina Joseph, Youth For Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA). The second session focused on a ‘ground perspective’ providing community workers with tools and methods for working at the grassroots level, especially during a disaster situation. This session was led by Sana Dharani and Harshukh Solanki from Aga Khan Agency for Habitat India.
Session 1: Housing and Disasters — A Strategic Perspective
Community Involvement in Disaster Planning and Response
Through the first session, all panelists agreed (drawing on facts and experiences) that disasters, of any form, cause certain new vulnerabilities to emerge but equally deepen pre-existing ones. In keeping with the theme of adequate housing, Lara Shankar clearly defined the periods of disaster response into, first a period of immediate relief where people’s urgent needs are met, following this the journey towards rehabilitation, particularly with reference to housing, which includes the provision of temporary shelter allowing for various levels of assessments towards permanent housing. She pointed out that this buying of time also allowed design experts to collect relevant information to develop cost-effective, disaster-resilient, culturally-relevant houses while building trust with the community by slowly involving them into the process. Developing this idea further, Omkar Khare discussed the idea of ‘ideal reconstruction’ which included “the participation of people, to build safe houses which pay attention to cultural and traditional lifestyles, while minimising the future disaster risks and addressing other needs like water, sanitation, waste-management, access to livelihood, etc.” Through a case-study of Malin, a village in rural Maharashtra that lost almost everything due to a devastating landslide in 2017, he explained how participatory processes instill a feeling of ownership and allow for a process of physical and emotional recovery, too.
Convergence of Stakeholders and Schemes
However, people cannot act by themselves. Lara Shankar said that it is essential that they work with local authorities. She pointed out how they were responsible for the functioning of many other schemes which could be diverted to help in recovery. Commenting on ‘strategies of convergence’, she said that when MGNREGA, WASH, Housing, Disaster response are aligned the needs of the beneficiaries are met without creating further shock and in the quickest manner. Omkar added to this, saying that it would be advisable to not reinvent the wheel but instead to attempt that 80 per cent human and financial input emerged from existing schemes. Hence, in the coming together of schemes, the various stake-holders, including the affected persons, the local-government, district authorities and non-governmental agencies, can come together to find themselves located within a well-laid out framework where they can collude forces and resources.
Assessing Emerging Needs
Recognising that each disaster was unique, Lara Shankar emphasised the need for contextualisation of disaster related strategy. She shared how the immediate needs of the people during the COVID-19 pandemic related to health, both physical and mental, within the paradigm of housing. As the number of cases grew in the second wave, a sense of more community-oriented needs, like the building of isolation centres equipped with basic medical facilities was gradually felt. Hence, she pointed out that in every kind of disaster regular needs assessments are necessary, as the nature of needs is constantly changing.
Disaster Preparedness as a Key Element of Resilience-building
Both speakers pointed towards a lacunae in disaster resilience being in the period of risk mitigation and planning. Omkar Khare pointed out that ‘safety’ in housing cannot be an afterthought, hence it is as important for authorities to study the degree of risk when providing housing clearances for the construction under government schemes or even by private agencies. He said that this was particularly necessary in urban areas where several settlements were built precariously on the side of hills or too close to the coast/riverbed inhibiting the natural passage of water, and therefore contributing to disaster that causes destruction. For this, housing authorities need to ensure future disaster resilience when allowing for present construction.
With reference to the present laws and policies, the panelists pointed out several grey areas. Some of these included the inadequate reference to the right to housing in National Disaster Management Framework, lack of reference to social risk not a criteria for ‘loss of housing due to disaster’ (including incidents of caste/communal violence), the lack of protocol to assist people who have lost their documents in a disaster to procure duplicates immediately. Finally both speakers touched upon a need for state-initiated assessment of disaster loss with a 360-degree focus.
Session 2: Working on Disasters — A Practical Perspective
This bridged the path into the next session where Sana Dharani and Harsukh Solanki, from Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, walked the participants through the process of assessing risk, loss and levels of safety with regard to housing.
The suggested approach recognised the knowledge and skills of the community participants, interspersed with the need to include technical persons with the know-how about geographical/seismic condition, disaster-resilient architecture, etc. The aim of this process was to use vernacular housing as a base, thereby recognising the available structures and knowledge of construction, and to modify it only where it was deemed unsafe. The process of modification for increased resilience was possible either through repair, retrofitting or reconstruction, with efforts to change as little as possible. Sana Dharani emphasised the need for awareness raising and preparedness for future disasters, as a key element of strengthening the response to an emergency situation.
In the latter half of the session, Harsukh Solanki walked the participants through the process of using a ‘safe-housing assessment tool’. The tool that he shared focused on three key aspects: structural and non-structural safety, affordability and habitability, while focusing on simplicity. He clarified that the tool was intended to be used by non-technical persons in the period soon after a disaster, to assess the level of housing loss before the arrival of the technical team. It employed observation as the primary tool, coupled with the need for some photographs wherever proof was needed, so that a comprehensive assessment was possible by those who had immediate access to the site.
About Maha PECOnet 2.0
Maha PECOnet 2.0 is a coalition of about 77 development partners convened by UNICEF, active since April 2020 with an objective to form a unified emergency response in Maharashtra. With the resurgence of the second wave and dreaded anticipation of multiple waves in India, the efforts have doubled up under Maha PECOnet 2.0. Members, with the support of onground volunteers and teams, are working across urban and rural locations facilitating populations in getting vaccinated as well as reiterating COVID Appropriate Behaviours (CAB) and Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) behaviours promoting safety from the virus. Simultaneously, efforts are continuing to tackle food insecurity as well as strengthen healthcare infrastructure. In the long term, the platform envisions resilience building and risk reduction amongst the most vulnerable in order to build back better from this catastrophic situation. Youth For Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) is the Joint Secretariat for Maha PECOnet 2.0.